Why Britain must keep a clear head in the debate on drugs

Dame Sally Davies’ important contribution to the discussion about the UK’s drugs laws has been lost in a tabloid frenzy

It all stemmed from such a civilised conversation. Sunday lunchtime, and Dame Sally  Davies, England’s highly-respected chief medical officer, was the guest of Michael Berkeley on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions programme.

As Dame Sally explained her admiration for Vaughan Williams’ viola pieces, no one could have predicted that the discussion would soon take a turn that would lead to screaming tabloid headlines. But then she started talking about drugs. 

“I never smoked so I couldn’t smoke joints,” Dame Sally said of her university days (shortly after chuckling at Mr Berkeley’s observation that, for some people, “Wagner is a drug”).

“But I did have some cookies, until on the third or fourth occasion I had hallucinations and I’ve never touched it since.”

While most listeners probably smiled, many recalling a similar youthful misdemeanour, and got on with cooking Sunday lunch, the  editors at the Daily Mail decided to run Dame Sally’s words on the front page – under the headline: “Shock  admission from UK’s top doctor: I’ve taken cannabis”.

It might be argued that we really should not be shocked any more when public figures born from the 1940s onwards confess to having taken drugs in their youth. Two US presidents have done so (although one “did not inhale”). The Mayor of London admits to having had “some drugs” (cocaine and cannabis specifically) and while the Prime Minister has never confirmed stories of a sneaky spliff during his Eton days, he has never issued a denial either.

The only truly unfortunate thing about Dame Sally’s confession is that it may have overshadowed the serious point she made immediately after.

“I think I understood through that what my father said to me when I said I was going to try it. He said: ‘drugs decivilise you, you stop being a civilised person,’” she said. “And I understood why so many people were against even the soft drugs.”

Asked whether, as a doctor, she saw drugs as “a medical problem rather than a criminal one”, she was clear: “Of course it’s a medical problem. Addiction is a medical problem and it becomes a public health problem and then our society is choosing to treat that as a criminal justice issue.”

Increasingly, the debate on drugs is being polarised between these two camps: those who see drug abuse and addiction as a criminal problem to legislated against, and those who see it as a medical syndrome to be treated at a public and a personal level.

Dame Sally did not elaborate any further on Private Passions, allowing the Department of Health to claim that she was “not saying anything new” and that the UK “already approached drug use as both a health and criminal issue”.

However, her intervention is a meaningful one. The Government  has been under pressure, sometimes from within its own ranks, to overhaul the UK’s drugs laws, which are seen  by a growing number of doctors and frontline support workers as  overly punitive, counter-productive and stigmatising; criminalising thousands for harmless misdemeanours, and at the same time failing to  reduce rates of genuinely harmful  substance abuse.

At the end of last year, Nick Clegg called for a Royal Commission to look at options for reform, including decriminalisation – a call that was firmly rebuffed by the Prime Minister. Then in January a cross-party group of peers called for the possession and use of all illegal drugs to be decriminalised.

The powerful Home Affairs Select Committee also backed calls for a Royal Commission, but again, pressure for major reform was rejected, with the Home Secretary Theresa May saying in March that there was no case for “fundamentally rethinking the UK’s approach to drugs”.

Cross-bench peer Baroness Meacher, who chaired the all-party group, disagrees. “Most countries in Europe have the health department as the lead department on drug policy rather than the interior ministry or the home office – which is a statement in itself,” she told The Independent.

“It’s not just me, it’s not just Dame Sally Davies, it is a generally accepted view now across the western world that drug problems are a health problem and should not be seen as a  criminal problem.

“Once you treat dependent drug users as having a medical problem, not criminalising them, then after they get better they are able to get into work and normal life much quicker, saving the taxpayer money.”

Calls for major reform have gathered momentum recently, championed by the very vocal comedian – and former heroin addict – Russell Brand, and attracting the support of high profile figures including Sir Richard Branson and a number of MPs. Labour’s Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he wanted Dame Sally’s words to spark “a much-needed debate about the way we treat drug addiction in this country.”

“The Committee spent a year scrutinising UK drugs policy, and it was very clear to us that many aspects of it are simply not working and should be fully reviewed by a Royal Commission,” he said.

“Drugs need to be treated as a  medical as well as a criminal issue, and the Government should seriously  consider our recommendation that ministerial responsibility for drug  policy should be held by the Department for Health as well as  the Home Office.”

Although a full-scale review has been put on hold, Ms May did  announce a “what works” study, which would look at the impact of different drug laws in other countries. Liberal Democrat crime prevention minister Jeremy Browne is in the process of  visiting several jurisdictions, including the US states of Washington and Colorado, as well as Portugal and the Czech Republic, where drug laws have been loosened to varying extents.

He is expected to report back by the end of the year. Even if he does propose that the UK could learn a thing or two from Portugal – where criminal penalties for possessing small quantities of drugs were abolished in 2001 – it is hard to see any liberalising measures being adopted while an election looms, in which the Conservative Party must appease right-wing voters. In other words, the conversation about drugs – civilised or otherwise – looks set to continue for many years yet.

Drug use: How to deal with it

Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners

“Substance misuse is predominately a health issue. Of course criminal justice needs to be involved somewhere along the way, but not as it is at the moment for users who are feeding a habit and sometimes dealing to feed their own habit. I’ve worked with drug users for more than 25 years and nobody has ever done well going to prison. I’ve never ever known the criminal justice to promote recovery.”

Baroness Meacher, chair of All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform

“I don’t believe the Daily Mail is surprised [by Dame Sally’s hash cake confession]. They know as well as any of us that many people in senior positions in politics and elsewhere have taken drugs. It is a very normal thing, these days, to have done. One may not praise it, one may not respect it but it is something we must accept as a society. Our job as a society must be, as much as possible, to reduce dependency on hard drugs – heroin and cocaine.

Keith Vaz MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee

“I hope Dame Davies’ comments will spark a much-needed debate on the way we treat drug addiction in this country…Drugs need to be treated as medical as well as a criminal issue, and the Government should seriously consider our recommendation that Ministerial responsibility for drug policy should be held by the Department for Health as well as the Home Office.”

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the drugs charity Release

“It’s even broader than just treating it as a health issue. Does the criminal justice system work in bringing the outcomes the government would like to see in terms of reducing levels of drug use? Repeatedly evidence has shown that the use of criminal laws to achieve that aim doesn’t work.”

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